Many community residents and small-business owners fear that the proposed light rail line will do to St. Paul’s Midway area what Interstate 94 did over 50 years ago to the old Rondo neighborhood.
The Metropolitan Council’s proposed construction of an 11-mile Central Corridor Light Rail Transit (CCLRT) will connect downtown Minneapolis, downtown St. Paul, the University of Minnesota, the Midway district, the State Capitol complex and many neighborhoods in between. It is scheduled for construction next year and expected to open in 2014.
“The Central Corridor LRT line is a vital element in the council’s vision to expand our transit system,” Chairman Peter Bell recently said in a written statement. “It also will provide improved access to employment, educational and economic opportunities along the corridor and beyond.”
However, many who live around or nearby University Avenue, a main CCLRT route, see the proposed line destroying the area’s “economic engine” and neighborhood cohesion as did the I-94 freeway. Their key concerns include reduced transportation access, short- and long-term loss of small and ethnic businesses, and longtime residents being displaced.
Veronica Burt, a community organizer for the Central Corridor Equity Coalition and the Preserve and Benefit Historic Rondo Committee, says that what is happening now is similar to what happened over five decades ago; as planners then didn’t value Rondo’s history, CCLRT planners seemingly are not taking into account the University Avenue neighborhood’s historic value as well.
University Avenue “is a cultural hub that everybody comes to: to get their church on, to get their grub on, get their beauty on, and all that stuff,” she proudly said.
Burt’s organization brought in three out-of-town presenters; each spoke on the effects of economic displacement when light-rail construction and redevelopment occurs during a series of community forums held the week of April 13.
Sushma Sheth, a community organizer from Miami, told the audience April 16 at Lao Family Center that the light-rail project is “only as effective as community residents are involved in the process.” Too often, however, low-income residents and people of color usually are not involved, she added.
Harold Lucas, who is a leading crusader in saving Chicago’s Black architectural history in that city’s historic Bronzeville community, pointed out that University Avenue “has the fixing for a major tourism attraction that could generate new jobs and businesses.”
Thao Tran, who as community development fund chairman helped disburse almost $12 million dollars in mitigations payments to small businesses and residents during Seattle’s light-rail construction, added, “Since they are going to build this thing in little more than a year, I would talk to the outreach people at the Met Council, and I would talk to the very top level and try to find some [mitigation] money.”
“I am also concerned about gentrification,” added area resident Theresa Charles.
“My concern is how bad is this going to affect us,” said Betty Charles, owner of Shear Pleasure Salon of Beauty, located on University, “and if a lot of the small businesses will not be able to stay in place.”
“Personally, I am not happy about [CCLRT],” added Arnellia Allen, who owns and operate Arnellia’s. “I am concerned about the parking and what impact it could have on my business.”
“We are not dividing the community, but bringing them together with a new modern mode of transportation,” noted CCLRT Community Outreach Coordinator Joey Browner. “Our role as an outreach coordinator is to be the bridge between our project and the public in informing them.”
More crossing lights now will be installed as a result of feedback received at several community meetings, added Robin Caufman, CCLRT manager of public involvement. “There will be a signal light or non-signal lights in every block,” she claims.
According to Betty Charles, who said that she attended these meetings, “Enough of us don’t understand what is really going on, and sometimes I am thinking that [officials] are not telling us everything,” she surmised.
“No matter what the actual answer will be,” Browner pointed out, “it still won’t be good enough for everybody. [However], we have addressed those concerns.”
Burt, however, strongly disagreed with Browner. She argued, “Our point of contention is that community people have had issues with this project, starting even with the alignment on University Avenue. When the Met Council made their decision, we made [an] issue of that even though [they’re] projecting something in our neighborhood, it is not going to even benefit [us].”
The CCLRT meetings are nothing more than perfunctory, believes Burt. “The way they have engaged us is pretty much [that] they come to the sessions, telling us what they are going to do,” said Burt.
The “shrinking” sidewalks as a result of building the new train system “don’t have enough room for people in wheelchairs, walkers and strollers to get down the street,” said former St. Paul city councilwoman Deborah Montgomery.
“What frustrating us more,” continued Burt, “is that the Met Council has sat down and negotiated with the University of Minnesota through all of their issues and concerns. They sat down recently and resolved issues and concerns with Minnesota Public Radio.
“We’ve been trying to directly have a meeting with [Met Council Chairman] Peter Bell, and he has not been [receptive] of such a meeting.”
The MSR left several phone messages for Bell, requesting comment, but he did not return our calls. However, CCLRT spokeswoman Laura Baenen said that Bell is working with the Black community, and added that criticism directed towards the council is unfair.
“Some of these criticism [are] not being supported by facts,” and Baenen contends that U of M and MPR did not get everything they wanted.
“Minnesota Public Radio did not get the route changed [or] moved off Cedar — that is what they really, really wanted,” she explained. “The University of Minnesota really, really wanted a tunnel and the route changed, too, and they didn’t get that either. Other groups have been asked to compromise and have compromised.
“This project is requiring a lot of compromises to stay within the federal budget limits in order to get it built,” Baenen surmised.
However, according to Montgomery, her community is “being pushed by a [start] date that supercedes the issues. If we would’ve been in on the front end of the planning instead of the rear end of the planning, maybe some of these things could have been addressed in a timely fashion,” she believes.
Finally, “We got to hold officials accountable to our needs and our aspirations” and the CCLRT project is “not friendly to the needs and aspirations [of] our community,” concluded Burt.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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